Trip Planning Online?

Back on the road again…should it be on the screen?

A picture of a laptop  computer surrounded by print travel guides and booklets.
Trip planning online or in print material? Image:www.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am an older traveler and have caught the travel bug again now that I am  fully vaccinated. I plan to take some seriously long car trips and perhaps a cruise. I am thinking that trip planning is online and the most complete travel information is on my Ipad or Iphone. My girlfriend insists trip planning is not online and recommends that I start with the bookstore for travel books and the auto club for maps. Hasn’t most trip planning moved online, and am I not right to start there? Cecil, Oakland

Dear Cecil: You are both right. It comes down to a matter of personal preference as well as familiarity and trust with online platforms. Rather than choose one or the other, why not use both online sources and the travel books and maps as complements for trip taking? After all,  you have more than one adventure in mind!

Online maps will help you get from point A to B, but in other ways might narrow your adventures. They typically program you to take the most efficient route, although scenic routes can be found in the ‘alt’ settings. An online map makes you seek a destination so you might miss a detour that captures spur-of-the-moment interest. Entering “What’s Near Me” on Google maps  helps but remember that what loads first is often a paid-for-ad. I personally begin every long trip with a big-old fold out road map. The bigger screen for a map display, say on the IPad, is spotty without cellular service. 

Place or Placement?

Once you are on the road, you could use sites like Yelp/Open Table, and Hotels/ Trip Advisor (no endorsements here) to identify where to eat and stay. Again, the recommendations that rise to the top are ad placements. But, that’s not to say that print travel guides don’t have drawbacks. Print books have been called out for inaccuracies, and it’s hard to keep the recommendations for food and hotels up-to-date. Recently these books have been diminished by the force of the Internet.

Keep in mind that travel is a huge ($$) industry, and there are lots of sources that would like to literally track your entire trip. I looked up an online source that Lonely Planet, once a trusted source, recommended called Thorn Tree. It had a site forward that then asked me to log in with a Twitter account or Facebook. While I could begin there for travel ideas, should I?  The option was to create an online account and doing so was like giving a pint of blood: this online travel site demanded my email address, and then, surprise, my age, zip code, and more. 

Is it Travel-Bait?

If I had exchanged privacy for travel information perhaps the site would have recommended the ‘top ten things.’ That’s just more  click-bait travel following the bucket-list tradition. With that in mind I hope the travel advice you seek will be more expansive. 

Before you set out, you may want to purchase or download printed travel guides or check them out from the library. Get the latest versions of these books if you plan to use their hotel/dining recommendations!  The guide books should help you go deeper than the ‘top ten’ to discover the  cultural background and history of places you visit. How did this community get settled and what do people do there?  If you were a local, what would be unusual and interesting in this place? There was an in-print travel guide called NFT (Not For Tourists) that used to cover some of the bases for bigger cities. If guidebooks doesn’t work for you, and you are somewhat extroverted, then seek a local watering hole when you arrive and ask the bartender, barista, or patrons for ideas. 

 When we take a trip to someone else’s community we are dropping in:  it’s important to honor their local values and traditions. Some of that tradition might be found in places or occasions: say  the baseball stadium, the annual county fair, the pancake breakfast fundraiser, and the bimonthly antique show. If you exclusively search online, you might drive right past it. 

Too Many Apps?

The text says 25 billion apps have been dlownloaded. From Business Insider. No date.
Source: Business Insider

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am going to get a new phone and am wondering whether I should transfer all the apps on it, or just keep the ones I use. My wife says I have too many apps and it’s time to houseclean. I don’t see the need. I promised her I would let you make the decision. Joe S., Fairfax

Dear Joe: Housecleaning never seems like fun, but if you do it with intention you could find yourself in a better place with your new phone. A couple of years ago, say 2015, it was popular to ‘app up’ our phones. It was a mark of coolness.  In fact, the Sunday papers had a weekend feature in which they named a celebrity and then displayed all the cherished apps on his/her home screen. 

We’ve moved on. There is greater awareness that apps are like calories- some of them are good, but too many make us bloated. Apps can chew up the phone’s memory and battery resources.  They also run background processes that you don’t see. Most of all they introduce security risks as the app code and operating system fall out of synch. Time to housekeep?  Simform, a U.S. tech company, says the average person has 40 apps installed on his phone. Of those 40 apps, only about 18 are regularly used. And, it’s usually five apps (mostly social media) that get used all the time.

Not So Free:

Apps are usually free to download, but they have a cost for owners.  If you are using location services, and/or have not enabled ‘do not track’  they might send your phone’s identifier to a third party. 

But, judging from an aesthetic point of view, like the celebrity apps in the Sunday paper, they do have charm. They present themselves like a picture gallery of games we play or memories we keep.  Some apps are aspirational, for example, the download that promises to imbue new language skills.  Likewise, travel apps empower road warriors but are surely getting dusty nowadays . Others are one-night standslike Lugg, the moving service. Helpful to get that new sofa to the home, and the old one to the consignment store. When necessary, reinstall.


While Westerners use dedicated apps for access there is a different paradigm in some of the Asian countries. There, platforms like WeChat are the entry point. Every serious Chinese business has a WeChat official account, and users can access interactive services and transactions. Suppose you were ordering Didi Chuxing (like Uber)- you would never leave WeChat to get your ride and pay for it. In Indonesia ‘Go-Jek’ provides a similar service.

For the time being, keep Uber and Lyft on your phone, but for other needs just go directly to the web site and do your business. In my opinion, setting up your new phone is good reason to do a clean sweep. When you download and install your new apps, make sure to ‘check the boxes’ (settings) as I explain in this older review of Clubhouse. Going forward,  think of the apps you install on your phone as a two-way relationship. What are you going to get out of it, for how long, and do you share trust?

QR Codes and Kids’ Safety

An example of a QR code generator. Input your address and it will provide the digital barcodes. Parents need to think about kids' safety when these see these.
Very Easy to Make a QR Code- What about Kids’ Safety Using Them?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is it wrong to wonder why there is a QR code on the back of a kid’s cereal box? My four year old and six year old insist on using my phone when they eat breakfast now because they want to follow the code, play a game, and reveal some treasure. I am worried about these QR Codes and kids’ safety. Why can’t they just print directions on the box instead of making them go to a website with my phone?! Noelle, Strawberry

Dear Noelle:  It doesn’t sound like a nutritious way to begin the day. QR codes, aka Quick Response codes, help machines efficiently connect to humans. They don’t belong at anyone’s breakfast table. I personally use them when there is simply not an alternative, like on a printed airline ticket or a “contactless” menu.

Put simply, QR codes are a two-dimensional version of bar codes. Information is encoded in an image using vertical lines of different thicknesses. The Wall St. Journal recently had a “go to” article, extolling their two-dimensional properties.   A scanner is used to send up to 4000 binary digits (0/1) of information embedded in the QR code and a computer at the other end recovers the message, and can make error corrections as needed.  Mathematically, it’s a genius invention. The QR code has been in use for nearly thirty years, beginning with the Japanese inventory of factory parts.

Outside the Box

Today, QR codes have been in the news as they have been proposed to encode information about when you take your Covid vaccine, which dosages, and where administered. The problem I have is that I cannot see what is encoded in the protocol. While it is probably no different than the little scribbles made by health practitioners on the vaccination card I carry, I have no way of knowing if say, they mixed up the dates,  my name, or something else.  And, I will never know the metadata it might carry about me, my phone, the GPS settings, or more. 

There’s not much risk when your kids scan the code on your breakfast cereal, but I would hate to have kids clamoring early in the morning to play with my phone. Since 2017, a QR scanner has been built into the iOS phone camera. The QR code will not go away: your kids might need to use it on field trips to museums and when they view outdoor exhibits.

Question and Review (Q/R)

QR codes present greater risk if you are not on a school field trip, or out and about, and you scan a random QR code printed on a rogue menu, or an ad, say promoting a work-from-home scheme. Or, more vulnerable, a sticker with a QR code promises an interesting social event. You can never be sure what site those linkages are going to send you ro and if they can open up your phone’s settings.

We are all getting more informed and aware of the ways that our phones can spy on us, and how we need to lock them down. So, while a QR code saves us from having to first remember, and then say carry a vaccine card, or type in a long web address, efficiency is not always the best response. Certainly, not when it comes to boxes of breakfast cereal although it does lend a “high tech” crunch to that brand. Perhaps the cereal company might enjoy hearing from you!

Lots of  new symbols- the QR codes, emojis, hashtags, and the @ sign are all becoming a new vernacular, and they aid person- to -machine communications. The QR code is the most advanced of these, and at the same time, the most opaque.